It's a scene that could (and might still) appear in any one of the rash of fairy-tale films slated for the next two years. Now that fairy-tales have come up again on the Hollywood "What Now?" roulette wheel, we're going to see half a dozen retellings come to life, including a Red Riding Hood, a Cinderella, and no fewer than three Snow Whites (if you say so, Hollywood).
But the movie in question is Debra Granik's Winter's Bone, about a seventeen-year-old holding the homestead in a rural region of the Ozarks. After she discovers that her absentee meth-cooker father put their house up in his bail agreement, she sets out to find him in time to avert the worst. But as she confronts more and more of her powerful extended family looking for answers, it becomes less and less likely she'll live to find out.
While the movie's noir tropes are undoubted (the mysterious missing person, antagonistic police, a decidedly unforthcoming supporting cast, the hero finding out at movie's end what everyone else has known all along), Winter's Bone's use of archetypes goes beyond simply noir. Though dealing with contemporary problems and presented with all the grit the setting deserves, the film has so many fairy-tale elements that it gains resonance when viewed through the lens of the mythic.
This is not to say Winter's Bone is a direct fairy-tale retelling. Instead, it uses fairy-tale archetypes to define its stakes and provide markers for its hero's journey; the film's overt subject matter is modern, and the performances and production design are rendered with dogged realism, right down to its leading lady skinning a squirrel on camera. And though the overt plot is undoubtedly noir, much of its thematic resonance comes from its clever use of fairy-tale traditions and archetypes, in an unexpected—and unexpectedly mythic—context.
Take the film's heroine, Ree Dolly. As a seventeen-year-old caring for both her unresponsive, mute mother and her two younger siblings, she has the youth of the Maiden and the de-sexualized protectiveness of the Mother. The Crone, third in the trifecta, is Merab, the wife of mysterious and all-powerful patriarch Thump Milton, who is ostensibly the person who decides whether Ree can have the information she seeks—knowledge of her father's whereabouts (and later, the location of his body, so she can prove him dead before the police come to take the house).
Ree's quest is archetypally the same journey undertaken by the queen in "East of the Sun, West of the Moon"—the claiming of a loved one from seemingly-invincible gatekeepers—though it's worth noting that Ree does not make that heroine's mistake; her father's disappearance is instead a wrong against her family that she must set right by claiming him. (It's this lack of culpability that protects her when things turn violent, moments before relief and rescue.) And even though she's technically her family's caretaker, her attempts to save her homestead read less maternal than heroic—right down to the physical journey across a hostile landscape and the multiple (ignored) warnings to turn back.
This brings another mythic aspect into focus: though the father is the object of the quest, and the patriarch ostensibly safeguards his whereabouts, it's primarily women who move through the narrative. Ree's allies, her marks, and her enemy (Merab) are all women. (Indeed, it's Merab and not the patriarch who faces off with Ree—twice—in the final act, and in the movie's climax, provides the hidden knowledge that allows Ree to complete her quest.) This mirrors the familiar fairy-tale landscape in which the conflicts and relationships are largely between women (whether the princess and the stepmother, the sorceress and Rapunzel, or the murderous sisters in The Bird of Truth). The men are generally opponents, ineffectual father figures, or a protector who arrives in the nick of time.
Winter's Bone has one of those, as well. Teardrop, Ree's uncle, is the primary male character. As such, he inhabits all three roles, as their initial antagonism (he's the only man in the film to lay hands on Ree) gives way to an uneasy familial intimacy. The role of protector also falls to him; in one of the film's most mythic scenes, he rescues her from the beating at Merab's hands, "standing in" for her and effectively absorbing her sins against the family. Soon, he's acting as a man-at-arms as Ree pushes forward to get her answers. With the male influence condensed into a single character, the effect is that, though Ree acts on her own behalf throughout the film, Teardrop is for all intents and purposes her leading man (an idea given peculiar undertones once he's given up intimidating her, and at last turns to her aid with a tenderness that's as focused as his prior aggression).
Also worth noting is another, more subtle marker of Ree as hero rather than heroine—her personal identity trumping her sexual identity. Though she often gains passage to family strongholds by wielding her father's name like it carries the totemic power of Rumpelstiltskin, family relationships are the only material ones acknowledged throughout the film. Ree is not in a romantic relationship, no traditional romantic subplot appears, and no "outsiders" view Ree as a sex object. This holds even at the point of crisis; her punishment for ignoring warnings three times (a favorite fairy-tale number) is a savage beating—but it's delivered by Merab, rather than by the men of the family, removing any shade of intimidation along gender lines.
These are not the movie's only mythic elements; those with an eye for these undertones will also see shadows of the wicked stepmother in the neighbor who lays claim to Ree's younger brother (treated in the film more like an oldest son), and will make note of Ree's metaphorical transformation into a beast during a drug-addled dream sequence. Winter's Bone is a carefully constructed film, with layers of meaning that build on each other whether they're read literally or metaphorically, and which is equally rewarding either way.
In the upcoming onslaught of fairy-tale films, it will be interesting to see if more literal interpretations of these folk tales will be able to translate archetypes with similar care, and with the resonance with modern audiences that brought Winter's Bone so much critical acclaim that it found itself on 2010's Best Picture ballot at the Oscars. (Here's hoping that at least one of the Snow White remakes will strike the right chord; it would be a little embarrassing otherwise.) Though there are many films that bring mythic undertones to non-traditional fairy-tale stories, and which take on new meaning when viewed through that lens, it certainly seems like a prerequisite for fairy-tale films to do so.
But it might turn out that Winter's Bone's thematic descendants won't be fairy-tales at all—they'll be stories that know how to craft a new story from the bones of the old, which, after all, is what some of the best storytelling is about.